I meet a lot of people and whenever I’m traveling overseas I’m impressed by the number of folks who have either been to the U.S. or want to visit my country. But then I chat with them a little more and I get depressed. I ask them where in America they’d most like to visit and almost all have the same answers: New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Sometimes Disney World is thrown in but not often. I have some issues with these choices and while I sort of understand where they come from, I’d like to offer some alternate suggestions for where first time visitors to the US should go.
The Elephant In The Room: New York, Vegas and LA
First we have to answer the question though why these three cities? To begin, I agree with New York and have no issue with the fact that almost all foreign visitors want to head to the Big Apple first. The star of countless TV shows and movies, it really is one of the best cities in the world and I encourage everyone to visit. But then there’s the issue of Vegas and LA. Again, I think that the impetus for visiting these two cities comes entirely from pop culture and sadly, that’s not good enough. Why visit Vegas? To gamble and drink? If that’s all you want to do, then maybe you should rethink your visit to the country. LA makes the list because everyone thinks that they’ll get some sort of iconic Hollywood experience there, but they won’t. Instead they will find a massive and sprawling city with little to do and see of interest. Again, it’s just my opinion but if you’ve never been to the U.S. before Vegas and LA should NEVER be the first two places you visit. Instead, you should look to other parts of the country that really are emblematic of America and where you’ll start to learn a little bit more about this great country. I could list possible destinations for would-be first time travelers to the States all day long, but to keep this list more manageable I’ve limited myself to just a few top picks.
The Pacific Northwest is one of my personal favorite areas of the country and I think a great spot to visit for any first time visitor. Seattle in particular is a fantastic option because there’s so much to see and do both within the city limits and just a short drive beyond. Like any city, just walking around Seattle is part of the fun and a visit to the touristy but enjoyable Pike Place Market rewards folks with fresh fish and the original Starbucks. I love quirky museums and Seattle has plenty of those like the Experience Music Project Museum. Great daytrips include Mount Rainier, San Juan Islands and the Olympic Peninsula and once you’re back in town the food options all around town are plentiful with a little something for everyone. I think of the Pacific Northwest as America’s fun-loving, outdoorsy side and it’s an important aspect to our personality about which everyone should learn more.
2. New Orleans
One of my favorite cities, New Orleans does usually appear on the top ten lists for many international visitors, but not necessarily for the right reasons. Sure, Bourbon Street is a party every night of the year, but the city is about a lot more than booze and dancing. I think the city is one of the most interesting in the country and its history is so strange and unusual that it begs people to learn more about it. Always a welcoming place, people of all shapes and sizes have lived peacefully side by side for centuries in America’s first and most successful melting pot. Today in addition to a place to learn about history, it’s also a major foodie destination. Since Hurricane Katrina hundreds of new restaurants have opened, more than triple than what existed before the disaster. The result is a culinary wonderland with the traditional staples like Cajun and Creole, but also some new and innovative foodie experiences.
3. Washington, DC
OK, I may be biased since this is my hometown but I really do think that DC is an important first stop when visiting America. Our nation’s capital, all of the important monuments and memorials are found here, many of which line the beautiful National Mall. Also along the Mall are some of the best museums in the world, the always free to enter Smithsonian Institution museums that cover everything from American History to Air and Space and some smaller, more unusual ones as well. But we’re not just about museums and monuments, in recent years the city has seen a shift in demographics and old neighborhoods have come back to life. Explore new restaurants and bars in Barracks Row or head to Georgetown to do some high-end shopping. DC is also well-located, an easy drive, bus or train ride from Philadelphia and New York so there’s really no excuse NOT to visit the capital city region.
4. Epic Drive
America is huge, on a scale that most people around the world really can’t grasp at first. To really see and better understand what makes America tick a great road trip is in order. We love our cars so much here because it’s the only way to get around, and the small towns and beautiful landscapes you will experience on a long drive are just an added bonus. There are many great routes you could take, from an exploration of the Deep South to an old fashioned Route 66 drive. Something I personally would love to do is to drive around the American West, stopping off at National Parks, quirky towns and who knows what else. It’s only by getting out, talking to people in smaller towns and seeing what daily life is really like that you truly begin to understand this great country.
5. Any National Park
I’m proud to say that America started the modern conservation movement in the 19th century when it created the first National Park. Since then we have added 58 more and many other national monuments and sites forming a vast web of areas so important, that we have deemed they must be forever protected. The so-called North American model of conservation is now the norm around the world, but to really appreciate its importance a visit to a few American parks is in order. From Yellowstone to Yosemite and Glacier to the Great Smoky Mountains, we have a lot of options and no one should ever miss the opportunity to visit a few.
I love the South and I proudly claim it as my region of origin, which in fact is only partly true. Regardless, I think that the South gets a bad rap and while international visitors do in fact want to visit, I don’t think they do so for the right reasons. Why you should really visit the south is to learn more about the history of America, to experience a vibrant and lively culture and to eat some of the best food you’ll ever enjoy. One of the best places to do all of this is in Savannah, Georgia. A great colonial-era city, you can see all of America’s history through the graceful parks and architecture of the city, antebellum through today. It’s also a little quirky, which is the hallmark of any great Southern city. I think that real soul food is one of America’s great culinary staples, and you’re spoiled for choice down in Savannah. So go, explore and see what the South really is all about.
These are just a few of the many places where I think foreign visitors should go on their first visit to the U.S. What are some other places that should be added to this list?